The Reality of Approaching Your Employer About Workplace Bullying
Welcome to the April edition of Bully-Free Workplace Monthly. My name is Valerie Cade, and I’m the founder of How to Have a Bully Free Workplace. In our April edition, we are going to look at the common questions that you have about how to deal with a bully at work; and some very strategic answers to give you hope and inspiration in terms of combating this workplace problem.
We’re going to start off with our 3 statistics this month for bullying. For example, bullying transcends gender. Did you know that half of all bullies, in fact 58%, are women, and half of all bullying is woman to woman? So women comprise 8% of the targets as well. The vast majority of bullies, 71%, are bosses. So today, we’ll have a specific focus on the female aspect of bullying. This does not mean that men are not bullied. It might mean that fewer men feel comfortable in reporting the fact that they have been bullied. So we have to be very open minded in this aspect.
The research on bullying is very shallow. And it has only been reported in the last 20 years in terms of solid research and trends worldwide. A lot of work has been done in English-speaking countries such as the UK, Australia, Canada, and the United States. What is good is that people are starting to speak out about bullying. Where we are at right now is that there is awareness that bullying exists, but we probably do not know or have a general awareness of the very negative effects of bullying. Why? Because there is no legislation yet.
So how do we actually combat bullying? Well the first question we’re going to look states, Should bullying be distinguished from harassment, including sexual harassment or stalking? What is the difference? Well the answer, I believe, is that bullying is the underlying behavior and thus the common denominator of harassment and discrimination, stalking and abuse. What varies is the focus for expression of the behavior. For instance, a harasser or discriminator focuses on race, or gender, or disability. And as you know, less than 50 years ago, there was no policy or legislation in those areas. Thankfully now we do have policy and legislation. What’s next is the fact that bullies focus on competence and popularity which, at present, are not covered by employment legislation, let alone government legislation. So therefore, the onus is put on the target to actually document and prove that there is a bullying issue.
So where does this leave us right now? As in any movement, often it is the target or the underdog that must speak up for themselves. There is a period of time in which that overall, in terms of any workplace, will have to be the standard. The challenge is: if you’re currently being targeted, how does this make you feel and what can you do? Well, I suppose there is always the shining light of somebody’s example who actually does confront the employer and the bully and does have a breakthrough. But 85% of the time, the employer actually will do nothing. Now why is that? Why would the employer turn a blind eye or why would an employer not stand up against this kind of behavior?
The first point to make here, and it is worth noting, is that very often when somebody has been targeted by a bully, they are in an emotional state and understandably so. And what happens is, when someone is in an emotional state and they make a report or they share this with somebody else (i.e. their boss or HR), they are sharing it in such a way that they are hopefully waiting for their boss or HR to actually solve the problem. They are simply sharing the what has happened and the effects, as opposed to coming to their boss with a solution or a strategy.
And that would be true for any workplace situation when there is a problem. Most of the management gurus today would say “Come to me with the solution, not just the problem.” Well, this is true for those that have been bullied as well. The challenge is, if you are in an emotional state, it is very hard to think in your left brain and be very logical and strategic as to how to turn the situation around. So in our book, Bully Free At Work, one of the key points and drivers in the book states that we must, if we are targeted, document all of the occurrences between the target and the bully. For example, when does this happen? Under what circumstances? Who is involved? What are the various specific words that are said? What are the various specific feelings that are felt? What are the various specific outcomes as a result?
I do want to remind you that – but it seems a very backwards type of compliment – a lot of people who are bullied are actually very high functioning people. They are the overachievers at work. They are the honorable people. They are the ones with integrity. They are the ones with a heart for the company, in fact. They are the ones that are smart. They are the ones that are meek. They are the ones that do not seek conflict. They try to avoid it. At some level, the bully wishes those attributes for themselves; and therefore they are using power and force to try to gain those attributes for themselves, to try to control. Well, this can send the target spinning.
Now when we look at how to deal with a bully at work, we see that 85% of employers are not doing anything. So the very first step then is just to make sure that you are clear on how many times this happens, how it happens, what are all of the attributes. If you could somehow document a trend, then at least you’ve got some proof and you are showing that yes, this is happening and it’s not just hearsay.
The second point that you might want to look at is if there is anybody else around you who is also being bullied. Have them document their situation as well. Now, if they are not willing to do so or to go on record, then you can interview them and at least have some kind of documentation that this is also happening to others. But most often, targets are singled out. So it is left on your shoulders to document your own situation. The other piece that you could do is interview other people and ask their perception of what they have seen in terms of the bully targeting you and also to document that. There’s strength in numbers.
So let’s say that you’ve gone to great lengths to document everything, and now you approach your boss, your employer, perhaps HR, or an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) situation. You are now clear and ready. Does anything happen? Well, the answer is: not very often. An employer will often look at this, and maybe in their heart and their mind, they realize yes, there’s a problem; but now they are faced with the reality that they do not know how to deal with a bully at work. Some employers will then go to the trouble of actually bringing in the person who is said to be bullying, and they will interview them separately and privately. This is exactly when the bully will turn on their charm. They will start to say things such as, “Oh no, I’m just here for results. I was only trying to do my best.” They will go on the meek and mild offense to present their case that they are a company person and that it’s actually the target that has the problem.
The target is the tattletale. They’re the one that is wasting time documenting this, instead of getting on with work. They’re the one that is not getting the results. The bully is very clever. They’re like a Jekyll & Hyde approach.
So then at that point, management or HR is confused. They’ve got two different views, and they do not know which way to turn. Perhaps in their gut feeling of all gut feelings, they know at some level the target is right; but because of what the bully just said, they might error and duck out and start to agree with the bully.
Here’s a piece of information that will send you spinning. Some employers will just choose to want to believe the easy route, and actually take the bully’s advice, which might be, “Gee, we should really get rid of that target. I mean, they’re causing problems here. You don’t want a tattletale at work.” And then a lot of efforts will be made to squeeze out that target from the workplace. Why? Well, they won’t fight back. At some level, the employer might know, “Gosh, if I don’t get rid of one of them, I will have a continued problem on my hands”. Well, the bully in their forceful nature is starting to strategize to keep their position. While the target, meek and mild, and wanting to avoid conflict and create harmony, is the one that is ousted. Frequently, the target is asked to leave. It’s a very messy case. At some level, the target knows it was wrong; but they also know they don’t want to fight for that same job back.
If that has ever happened to you, my advice is to keep walking. You’ve just been involved in an organization that is not standing up for the integrity that you have inside of your heart. It is important to not fight back for that job. If you are to do so, you’ll have to ask yourself why. Do you really want that job? Now, the challenge you might face is if you go to a new organization and apply there – how will this come across? Well, just know that you do have rights. You have rights in terms of your employer, in terms of them letting you go. You can make a negotiated deal with your employer that they would give you a very good reference letter, so that you are able to move on and have further employment without any problem. They will know full well that there is a messy issue there at some level, and perhaps they will be very happy to set you up for your next job.
I guess when you’re in something like this, you can’t help but feel hurt and squeezed out, and perhaps be moving away with a feeling that this was just not fair and just. I would say, just take this as an opportunity to move on. Unfortunately, we are at a period in society where we do not have widespread company policy in regards to this issue of bullying. The good news is that at least we are at a place right now where people are talking and becoming more aware. It will take some time before things change, as in any movement. But for right now, if you are working, you might just want to make sure you just simply bully proof yourself.
Does this mean that you’re walking away and you’re turning a blind eye? No, it doesn’t. What can you do? Well, you can further educate yourself on the effects of bullying. And you can also start to spread the word to others about the effects of bullying. It is very important now that we inform the masses as to what bullying is and how to become aware of it. Once more people understand this, we will start to see that things will change. But without awareness, you cannot have any kind of policy. I guess what I’m saying is you really can’t care about what you don’t know about. So we must then commit ourselves to making sure that the masses are educated.
In other podcasts, we’ve looked at the profile of a typical bully. I just want to reiterate that the typical bully has some attributes. It’s an interesting statistic but over 90% of the cases reported in the United Kingdom National Workplace Bullying Advice Line involve a serial bully, and they can be recognized by their behavior profile which includes these attributes: compulsive lying, a Jekyll & Hyde nature (being nice one day, mean the next), an unusually high verbal ability to weasel their way out of most situations, charm, and a considerable capacity to deceive. And they do have a high level of emotional development when convenient. And bottom line, they have a compulsive need to control. It’s almost an addiction to control. It’s a gain for them.
Also interestingly, the serial bully rarely commits a physical assault where you could actually arrest them. They actually prefer to remain within the realms of the psychological violence and non-arrestable offenses. So in the majority of cases, the target of bullying is eliminated through forced resignation, unfair dismissal or early or ill-health retirement; while the bully is actually promoted. In fact, after the target has been eliminated, it has been said that within 2-14 days, the bully actually selects another target and the cycle restarts. Sometimes the target is actually selected before the current target is eliminated. So you can see the neurotic behavior that is occurring.
So what are some further statistics and how often does bullying really occur? Well, in the United Kingdom, which currently represents a lot of the research on bullying, that between 12 and 50 percent of the workforce experiences bullying at some level. And they say that 20% of the cases are from the education sector, 12% are healthcare, and 10% are social services. So that would be about 42% in terms of the helping professions. I’d add to that, that 6% are actually in the voluntary or charity or not-for-profit sector. When you look at these types of professions, they do attract the person with the “good heart”, the integrity-based person who’s honest and wants to do well. That’s exactly the kind of target a bully wants. So it is interesting that our helping professions, who are trying to help others, are the places where bullies target.
What do we do with that? Well, once again I guess Job One is to bully proof yourself. Number two is to realize that we are in a transition in terms of overall awareness in the workplace worldwide, and knowing your role within this whole large movement is key. I’m sure that most of us who have been targeted would actually lie awake at night, thinking of that the satisfaction that you can gain when the bully is reckoned with. Well, that might not happen in your lifetime. We are now in a key phase, and that is education. With education comes empowerment.
The third point around employers in terms of understanding bullying and their targets, and the reason why they may not do anything has to do with this situation is productivity. Why do businesses operate? Well, without productivity and results, you simply do not have a business. Very often, bullies are very productive in terms of the overall business results; but productive in terms of living a value-based life – no. Companies value productivity many times over the value for people. Most companies will say “Well, we want both.” But when you come down to it, which one does that company choose? Just like in anything, for example the environment, global warming, or any kind of movement, you will start to see some companies take a stand right off the bat. Once they take a stand, you’ll see other companies who really wanted to will start to think about taking a stand; but they might not. After a while, they too will join the fold. But you only have about 25% that will jump in and actually take a risk to take a stand. The majority of companies, say 50%, will sit around and watch to see; is there legislation? Is there policy? And will it be convenient? And will it be admirable to actually take a stance in this area? If so, and there’s a productivity payoff, they too will join the ranks. You’ll then have 75% of companies involved. That last shift will take another 10 to 15 years, in my opinion.
So are there economic effects of workplace bullying? Are there really costs to the employers? Are there really costs to the government? Well, bullying is very hard to measure; but bullying is one of the major causes of stress, and the cost of stress is thought to be about $12 billion a year in the United States. So, $12 billion is a lot of money. But often companies are not willing to look at “How could we create 12 billion by eliminating stress?” Sometimes companies just simply don’t know what to do in order to actually have a cost savings there. They think well, maybe it will go away. But at some level, as we become more educated, people will start to seek solutions for actually making sure that this is not even in the billions at all. The hope that I have is: We put a man on the moon, so I think that we can solve this problem. But it will just take some time.
So there is a huge cost of bullying, and it has a direct result to stress. In the beginning, when someoneone is targeted, they will simply cope. They will come to work and keep trying to do their job, even though they are very stressed. Well, that can only go on for a certain period of time. After a while, they will begin to miss work, they will start to feel confusion; they will not be the dynamic professional self that they actually carved themselves out to be. And then you will have inconsistencies. You will have sick time. You will also have, perhaps, lateness and acting out behaviors that the target never even dreamed of doing, based on the type of person they thought they would be in the workplace. It’s sad because it’s a silent disease. Furthermore, the target will feel like they have no support at all, especially when management doesn’t seem to empathize with their problem.
So what can the target do? Again, it’s simply making sure that you are strong; strong enough to actually withstand the actual direct targeting of the bully. But there are costs that don’t show up on a balance sheet. It’s very hard to measure. At some level, we do know that there are costs. If bullying is not stopped, it will spread throughout organizations like a cancer. Because of its subtle nature, bullying can be difficult to recognize. But the consequences are easy to spot. When excessive workloads occur, you will see people back away simply because they cannot handle the stress. There will be a climate of fear, and creativity will go down. There will be high levels of insecurity and people will not rise to the challenge.
Other aspects of stress will include: chronic fatigue, damage to the immune system, reactive depression, and sometimes suicide. The indirect causes of bullying are turnover, sickness, absenteeism; and of course those kind of results will only be seen over time through loss of production, reduced productivity and that will start to show its case. At that time employers may start to note that there’s something to do here.
One other aspect of workplace bullying is in the issue of workplace health and safety. If these specific situations occur in an environment where safety is a concern, you will start to see a drop in safety standards, or the actual adherence to them. I think that this is one of the first areas that we will start to realize that you just simply can’t maintain and “keep in the game” in a situation where you must be safe and “on the ball”. The good news is we are starting to see more research and more surveys in this area.
So what can we do to reduce the workplace bullying? Firms and government and law enforcement agencies, the courts – are they even aware of the magnitude? Are anti-bullying laws around the corner? And if they are, will they be effective? Well, there is good news. The UK is the leader in the world in terms of legislation, and in terms of company policy. There are areas throughout the world, for example in Quebec, Canada; and some parts of the United States who are also experimenting with some forms of policy and some forms of legislation. Like anything, we will see how that fares. But I do believe we’re on the right track and that things will start to move soon. Awareness of bullying is key. And if we just remember that 1 out of 6 people will be affected by workplace bullying in their lifetime, perhaps a prevention strategy is around the corner.
So what can we do right now? It’s always important to remember that workplace bullying is never, never the target’s fault. It is always the situation, where the bully is trying to take power away from somebody else. It is a backwards compliment to be bullied. Again, bullies do target somebody with high attributes of integrity, honesty – the kind of attributes the bully would want to have. For right now, the personnel departments, HR departments, and managers must be equipped with the skills of empathizing with those who have been targeted. If somebody does approach you who has been targeted from a bully, the first step is to listen and empathize. You might not understand it, you might not believe it, but if it is true for that actual employee, the inability to empathize just adds to the stress. The ability to empathize can actually feel like a very strong support, even if it’s just one person. And perhaps the target could make it just a little bit longer. Without empathy, we’re hooped. So that is Job One. The good news is, empathy does not cause you any time, any money, but it is necessary.
So where do we go from here? Well, we just have to simply recognize that the bully cannot be changed. It is a form of legislation and policy that will actually change behaviors of the bully. You might say, “Well, if I’m nicer to the bully, if I have some interpersonal strategies”… well, not really. It has to be taken into the hands of someone that has power – A manager, H – and it must become corporate policy. In order to create that, we must make everybody aware that bullying is everyone’s responsibility to understand, not just the targets. For now, it starts with the target.
So, for this month’s edition of Bully-Free Workplace Monthly, I say to those of you that have been targeted, or those of you that are responsible in companies for possibly creating any policy or legislation, become AWARE. Make sure that you understand the effects. Make sure that you have an eagle eye in terms of watching out in your own workplace for those around you and what effects they may be suffering right now. Remember that those effects will cause a loss of productivity in the long run, so a prevention strategy is never too early to implement. If you could make one commitment to yourself and your organization, it would be simply to be aware of workplace bullying and its effects. That is our first step.
Thanks for joining us for Bully-Free Workplace Monthly for the month of April. We would love to hear any of your concerns and comments. We are united with you in terms of making sure that this becomes policy and legislation, not just in the United States and Canada, and the UK, but worldwide. And it begins with the first step. Thank you for joining us.